THE TROUBLE WITH "SPORTS ENTERTAINMENT"
“Sports Entertainment” is a much-maligned term among professional wrestling purist.
Growing up, I never thought much about the significance of the term.
It just seemed like the WWE’s way of distinguishing its brand of professional wrestling from others. I wasn’t aware of any malice behind the phrase or that “Sports Entertainment” presented itself as superior to the territory “wrasslin business” of old. I didn’t know that it was designed as a means of distancing the WWE from negative public perceptions, steroids scandals, and the like.
And even after I learned more about the history of the phrase and grew to recognize a passionate divide between the concept of “Sports Entertainment” and the concept of “professional wrestling”, I still didn’t necessarily take issue with it.
Until recently, I simply thought of “Sports Entertainment” as a synonym for professional wrestling, a term that came to fruition for marketing purposes and existed comfortably in the pantheon of the medium. It seemed to me a harmless distinction because, inevitably, no one had ever fully embraced it outside of Vince McMahon. The terms “Sports Entertainment” was used so sparingly by the public that it seemed irrelevant to me.
If I rebelled against it in the past, it was purely because those fans who find themselves disenfranchised with the product will seek out concepts that represent the company’s regrettable creative decisions and reject them without always comprehending the nuances of the issue or the deeper problematic nature of the phraseology.
For a long time I watched pro-wrestling fans and even veteran pro-wrestlers rail against the term “Sports Entertainment” or “Sports Entertainer”, but I’d never really heard an explanation as to why. I inferred that it had something to do with the Disneyfication of the art.
It was always clear to me that Vince McMahon’s “Sports Entertainment” was not as believable, pure, or sport-focused as “professional wrestling”. “Sports Entertainment”, it would seem, allowed for shenanigans and cartoonish gimmicks and segments that devolved into someone literally kissing someone else’s ass. “Sports Entertainment” was a style of soap-opera pro-wrestling that seemed to ignore the time-honored traditions of kayfabe, something veteran wrestlers held sacred.
That, and that alone, seemed to be the root of people’s disdain for the term “Sports Entertainment”, with younger smarks taking any chance they could to latch onto a reason to rage against the WWE-machine.
And I completely understood and appreciated that, but it wasn’t until I started working on this website and The Work of Wrestling podcast that the real trouble with “Sports Entertainment” became definitively clear to me.
I’ve not yet heard or read the problematic nature of this phrase precisely articulated, and that is what I’m endeavoring to do here.
The trouble with that phrase is deeper than what Vince Russo's or Vince McMahon’s taste in entertainment produces. The problem with the free use of the phrase “Sports Entertainment” is that, like a botched move in the middle of a match or a cartoonish oversell, it inherently “exposes the business”. More accurately than “exposing the business”, it’s a phrase that “exposes the fiction” or unravels the emotional power of a story by acknowledging the story is a fantasy.
I’m not quite sure the simplicity of this phrase’s problematic nature is fully understood, least of all by the people who created it.
“Sports Entertainment” explicitly means “Fake Wrestling” or “Staged Sports”.
“Sports Entertainment” means “This is a television show. I am a character in that television show. Everything you are hearing and seeing is staged and illegitimate and is meant to entertain you.”
“Sports Entertainment” is a perfectly fine phrase for a pro-wrestling analyst or a pro-wrestling critic to use when describing the medium of professional wrestling. “Sports Entertainment” could be considered a sub-genre of theater where the drama inherent in athletic competition is accentuated by a morality play.
“Sports Entertainment” is a term like “Indy Movie” or “Jazz” or “Cubism”. It’s a phrase the viewer or the analyst would use to describe the genre of art they are experiencing or analyzing. It’s a phrase to be used outside the fiction of the WWE’s world to accurately describe the company’s chosen medium of expression.
Therefore, when Vince McMahon or Stephanie McMahon or Triple H or any WWE performer speaks that phrase whilst in-character, they are undermining the integrity of their narrative.
Every time a pro-wrestler like Dolph Ziggler “fights to entertain” and not to “win” or every time a pro-wrestler like Damien Sandow talks about his mission “to entertain” and every time the Vince McMahon character refers to his company as “Sports Entertainment”, he is telling the viewer not to believe in the fiction.
The phrase “Sports Entertainment” endorses the belief that wrestling is fake by frankly stating, “This is Sports Theater”.
Even the name of the company, World Wrestling Entertainment, is inherently problematic when used as the basis for a fictional world. Firstly, if the company doesn’t make good on its promise of entertainment then it appears to have failed. Secondly, that name completely destroys any fiction the company attempts to present by openly acknowledging, within the fiction, that it’s all fiction or “entertainment”.
“World Wrestling Federation” asserts that this is a legitimate athletic organization, a federation of wrestlers who compete for a prize not unlike the NFL or the UFC or the MLB. The name itself helps create a believable world. The viewer understands that it’s all a fiction, that it is not a legitimate sports organization, but the viewer also understands that for pro-wrestling to tell its story it must always present itself as real (just as any other fiction does) - otherwise it ceases to be a story altogether and mutates into something unrecognizable.
The professional wrestling medium, historically, attempts to approximate the reality of sports organizations so as to more effectively sell the pro-wrestling fiction.
That is, and forever shall be, the story of the professional wrestling medium or the work of wrestling; that it is a legitimate sport and that the displays of athleticism in the ring are legitimate attempts to defeat an opponent. That must remain true of the medium if it’s going to remain an effective form of storytelling.
It’s simulated combat in the way that Luke Skywalker’s journey toward self-actualization is the simulation of a human being’s maturation process or the way that Hamlet’s story is the simulation of how a human being deals with their desire for revenge or the way Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is a simulation of Hemingway’s life in Paris when he was young.
It always perturbed and confused me when I was younger that professional wrestling was the only “professional sport” that was staged. It always confused me that “professional wrestling” was never actually “professional” or inherently linked to amateur wrestling in the way that the NFL is related to College Football. Despite that massive disconnect, pro-wrestling still “got away with” calling itself professional wrestling. Now, after analyzing the medium intensely for three years, I understand why.
Professional wrestling must refer to itself as professional wrestling so as to tell a story.
That’s the beauty of professional wrestling, the complexity of professional wrestling, and the strength of professional wrestling.
If pro-wrestling referred to itself as “fake wrestling” you’d be less inclined to pop when the referee finishes a three-count. The phrase “professional wrestling” is a tool of the medium used to sell the fiction of the medium. It’s a means of more effectively creating the illusion of legitimacy.
If pro-wrestling openly acknowledged that it was staged while it was staging an event then it would cease to be telling a story of any kind and it would transform into something superficial and entirely ineffective. It would be a magic-show where the magician not only explained how he performed the trick after performing the trick, but repeatedly told you, while performing the trick, that the trick was an illusion. It's understandable that the audience would feel disrespected by that magician, and even turn against that magician for so blatantly insulting the reason they bought a ticket to his show.
I don’t think the WWE is aware of this problem, and how it results in a television show that is oftentimes alienating and uninviting. “Sports Entertainment” is a barrier between the viewer and the viewer’s desire to believe. This is a very basic, fundamental problem with the current state of the WWE’s “Sports Entertainment” and from this problem a wide assortment of issues abound. Perhaps every issue with the current product stems from this polluted perspective on the professional wrestling medium, a perspective that inherently negates a viewer’s desire to suspend their disbelief and enjoy a good story.
Everyone knows it’s a work (staged), in the same way everyone knows an actor on the silver screen is acting.
But the viewer’s emotional responses are real.
And the more the viewer is able to suspend their disbelief and ignore their separation from that actor, the more easily they’re moved to emotional highs and emotional lows.
If the special effects or the acting or the cinematography are poor or if there are mistakes in the editing, inhibiting one’s ability to believe, the viewer is reminded that they’re watching a movie and so they’re less inclined to get emotionally invested in the story and care about what they’re watching.
The WWE and “Sports Entertainment” consistently tells you, over and over again, with complete disregard for the sanctity of the forth-wall, that what you are watching is fake.
This opens up a pandora’s box of narrative problems.
Does the Triple H character think he’s putting on a television show?
Does the Stephanie McMahon character think she’s playing the Stephanie McMahon character?
If not, then what are Triple H and Stephanie, considering they endorse a phrase like “Sports Entertainer” whilst in-character?
What is Dolph Ziggler if he’s fighting to “entertain” and not to “win”? Is the Dolph Ziggler character openly admitting that he’s an athletic actor who puts on a show in an attempt to “get over” with the audience? Might this be why so few WWE performers naturally get over in the modern age?
It's incredibly difficult to seduce someone if you're constantly telling them, "I'm trying to seduce you."
What is the actual world that Triple H and Stephanie McMahon inhabit? Is it a corporate structure where matches are made purely for the sake of entertainment, a world where wins and loses are transparently predetermined thus negating the narrative significance of wins and loses?
What is the WWE?
I’m not writing about the WWE that’s publicly traded and that has a real-world headquarters in Stamford CT and produces several weekly television shows.
I’m asking, what is the WWE that I watch on Monday Night Raw? Because it’s clearly not the same WWE as the real-world WWE. It’s a fictional WWE that’s perpetually run by evil authority characters who enjoy manipulating fan favorites for indeterminate reasons. But, far too often, there's an overlap in the organizations that completely interferes in my ability to place my faith in a long-form story.
It’s clear the real-world company still wants people to get emotionally invested in its stories.
It’s clear the real-world company doesn’t want people to think that matches are predetermined as people are watching matches. It's clear the real-world company doesn't want me to think that the Stephanie McMahon I see on Monday Night Raw is the same Stephanie McMahon who represents the company's benevolent, philanthropic efforts and yet there is no framework on Monday Night Raw for what distinguishes the two entities.
It’s not clear what the narrative infrastructure of the fictional WWE company is.
And this is due in large part to the haphazard use of the term “Sports Entertainment” and the perspective that stems from characters regarding pro-wrestling as “Sports Entertainment”. The fictional WWE cannot be a forth wall-breaking entity that serves up a series of matches “for your entertainment” with a colorful cast of characters and simultaneously remain a sports organization that revolves around championships and main event matches. This creates a glaring inconsistency in continuity and inconsistencies in characterization that often results in the schizophrenia of Monday Night Raw and also results in the fan’s inability to get emotionally invested in what they’re watching.
It’s simply unclear exactly what they’re watching, and it’s because there is no governing principle with regard the WWE’s fiction. It’s a television show that’s telling you it’s a television show without realizing why telling you it’s a television show gets in the way of your ability to believe in what your’e seeing. It’s almost as though you’re watching a work of fiction that’s consistently making a massive mistake without being aware of the mistake it's making. I do not write this to run down the current product. I am a lifelong WWE fan and I think the company's in better shape today than it's been since The Attitude Era. The talent is spectacular, and I have nothing but hope for the future. I write this to point out a glaring issue that I don't think many people within the company are even considering.
The issue is less that “Sports Entertainment” results in cartoonish gimmicks and infantile stories, and more that “Sports Entertainment” fundamentally negates your ability to enjoy a story. The issue is not that the WWE is PG, it's that it's not selling you a consistent, easily accessible fiction that has any semblance of structure.
The purpose of every storyteller is to move the experiencer to a place of catharsis, a moment where they forget there is any separation between the real world and the fictional world presented to them. In pro-wrestling this is called "The Moment of Pop".
The storyteller's job is to create this experience as effectively as possible utilizing the tools of their chosen medium of expression. An orator by a campfire might shine a flashlight under his face. A musician might incorporate a polyphonic flourish to accent a particular emotion. A poet will choose their grammar incredibly carefully, incorporating assonance and consonance and personification in the pursuit of accurately portraying a real-world emotion or exploring a concept that couldn’t be comprehended outside the realm of poetry. A filmmaker will pick a particular lens or encourage actors to improvise or create incredibly detailed digital renderings so as to more effectively realize their story and convince the experiencer to believe.
The desire of the experiencer is to feel something as a result of the story they are experiencing. The stronger someone believes in what they’re experiencing, the stronger their emotional response will be. Great storytellers, therefore, are people who utilize the tools unique to their chosen medium of expression exceptionally well, so well that the illusion of their story, no matter how fantastical that story's world might be, is easily believed.
The tools of the professional wrestling medium are wrestling moves, the spoken word, the name the medium uses to describe itself, and the visual spectacle common to live sporting events.
The illusion of the professional wrestling medium is that what takes place in the ring is real.
Perhaps one of the reasons the WWE has struggled to connect with modern audiences is because of this ongoing problem with “Sports Entertainment” and the perspective it produces.
People are responding, subconsciously, to the fact that they’re being told not to believe.
People are having a very visceral, negative reaction to the sentiment “watch this entertaining thing, be entertained by it, and then be happy that we entertained you.”
They’re choosing to watch UFC, Mad Men, and The Avengers instead, because each of those seemingly unrelated creative entities share a common purpose: invite the viewer into a complete, confidently structured world that respects the viewer’s desire to believe in something. Entertainment is the byproduct of telling an expertly crafted story, whether it's the story of a legitimate athletic competition or the story of superheroes defeating evil. Entertainment is not "a thing" unto itself that can be achieved merely by presenting itself as "entertainment".
If the WWE wants to get over in 2015, then it is the opinion of this man of pro-wrestling faith that it’s time the old ways merged with the new.
It is time to create a WWE in the image of hyper-reality.
It is time for the WWE to present its main-roster fiction in the same way NXT presents its developmental fiction; as a legitimate, highly structured organization of athletes who are competing for the right to be named Champion.
It is time the WWE emulate the actual look and feel of a legitimate, live sporting event, and for promos, vignettes, and pro-wrestling stories to emanate from a consistent, sport-oriented fictional universe governed by realism-based principles. Such a world creates more interesting narrative-opportunities for performers at all levels of the card no matter how outlandish their gimmick. Such a world takes greater ownership of itself and leaves less power in the viewer’s hands. Such a world is governed by tournaments, wins, loses, and easily recognizable narrative principles that encourage viewers to "go along for the ride" instead of encouraging viewers to question every booking decision.
A WWE that presents its fiction as reality is a WWE that can more effectively manipulate the audience, because that audience is more inclined to buy into something that takes itself seriously.
The world I’m describing is the world professional wrestling fans desperately want from the WWE, even if those fans aren’t aware of the trouble with “Sports Entertainment”. I understand that, in theory, the WWE presenting their own fiction as a palatable fiction makes the product seem less violent, more kid-friendly, and seemingly less alienating. In practice, however, this style of presentation makes the product inaccessible and even difficult to follow.
All the moaning and groaning of the "Internet Wrestling Community" and today’s supposedly unmotivated millennial generation can be summed up in one very simple phrase:
We want to believe.
It is time the WWE let us.
Thank you for reading fellow believer. If you'd like to hear me talk about professional wrestling then subscribe, rate, and review The Work of Wrestling podcast in iTunes. Comment below with your thoughts and follow me on the various social media gimmicks